Mandalay is a city and former capital in northern Myanmar on the Irrawaddy River. In its center is the restored Mandalay palace from the Konbaung Dynasty, surrounded by a moat. Mandalay Hill provides views of the city from its summit, which is reached by covered stairway. At its foot, the Kuthodaw pagoda houses hundreds of Buddhist-scripture-inscribed marble slabs.
Mandalay gets its name from the nearby Mandalay Hill. It is said that Mandalay was founded on the wishes of the ruler of the day. On 13 February 1857,King Mindon founded a new royal capital at the foot of Mandalay hill. When it was founded in 1857,the royal city was officially named Yadanabon, a loan of the Pali name Ratanapura “City of Gems”. It was also called Lay Kyun Aung Myei “Victorious Land over the Four islands”.
The new capital city site was 25.5sq miles in area surrounded by four rivers. The plan called for a 144-square block grid patterned citadel, anchored by a 16 square block royal palace compound at the centre by Mandalay Hill. Four 2,032m long walls and a moat 64mwide, 4.6m deep, surrounded the 1020-acre citadel. At intervals of 169m along the wall, were turrets of gold-tipped spires for watchmen. The walls had three gates on each side, and five bridges to cross the moat. In addition, the king also commissioned the Kuthodaw Pagoda, the Pahtan-haw Shwe Thein upasampada hall, the Thudamma “Good Dharma” zayats or public houses for preaching Buddhism and a library for the Pali Canon.
In June 1857,the former royal capital of Amarapura was dismantled and moved by elephants to the new location at the foot of Mandalay Hill, although construction of the palace compound was officially completed two years later on 23 May 1859.
For the next 26 years, Mandalay was the last royal capital of the Konbaung Dynasty, the last independent Burmese Kingdom before the annexation by the British Empire. Mandalay ceased to be the capital on November 1885 when the conquering British sent Thibaw Min and his queen Supayalat into exile, ending the Third Anglo-Burmese War.
Mandalay remained the chief city of Upper Burma during the British colonial rule, but the commercial and political importance shifted to Yangon. Throughout the colonial years, Mandalay was the center of Burmese culture and Buddhist learning, and as the last royal capital, was regarded by the Burmese as a primary symbol of sovereignty and identity. In 1904-05, a plague caused about one third of the population to flee the city.
World War 2 brought devastation to the city through air raids. The Japanese conquest of Burma, the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service carried out an extensive assault on the city. About three-fifths of the houses were destroyed and about 2,000 civilians were killed. The palace citadel was turned into a supply depot by the Japanese and burnt to the ground by Allied bombing. The only two things remained were the watchtower and the royal mint. A replica of the palace was built in the 1990s.
After the country gained independence from the British in 1948, Mandalay continued to be the main cultural, educational and economic hub of Upper Burma. The city has had many fires that have destroyed a lot of buildings and markets. In the 1980s two major fires that razed more than 6,000 houses and public buildings left more than 36,000 people homeless hit the city. In 1984 another fire destroyed 2,700 buildings and made 23,000 people homeless. Fires continued to plague the city and in 2008 a major fire destroyed Mandalay’s second largest market. Another fire in 2009 destroyed about 320 homes and left over 16,000 people homeless.
As a result of the fires there was a significant change in the city’s physical character and ethnic makeup. Today 30-40% of the city’s population is believed to be ethnic Chinese. The city is now rebuilt with apartment blocks, hotels and shopping centers and now has become once again the trading hub connecting Lower Burma, Upper Burma, China and India. Mandalay celebrated its 150th birthday on 15 May 2009.
Inspite of the rise of Naypyidaw, the country’s capital since 2006, Mandalay remains Upper Burma’s main commercial, educational and health center.
Mandalay is a very interesting place to visit and it is surrounded by a number of very old and historical sites. It remains Burma’s cultural and religious center of Buddhism, having numerous monasteries and more than 700 pagodas.
In the next few articles we will visit interesting pagodas and monasteries.